I currently have four kids in elementary school from kindergarten to fifth grade. My kids have not experienced any sexual abuse (to my knowledge); we have been very careful about any potential porn exposure; we closely monitor their involvement with pop culture through music, movies, books, and even commercials. While we might seem to err on the side of overly sheltering them, what we have also done is be very open with our kids about sex. We have told them the truth when they’ve asked questions.
And have they asked some questions! Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been asked by my kids over the past few years:
How does a baby get inside a mommy?
Can you have sex if you aren’t married?
What does the “f-word” mean and why would somebody say that?
How will I know when I’m old enough to make babies?
What does “rape” mean? Why would someone do that?
What is a prostitute?
What does it mean to be gay?
While some of these questions may seem shocking (and there are definitely questions I left out), we did our best to answer them honestly and without seeming overly shocked. Sometimes we had to defer a bit. A child who leans over during church to whisper in your ear, “What is adultery?” may hear, “Let’s talk about it when we get home” as a response. Not every moment is the appropriate one for answering these questions, but I have never once answered, “We’ll talk about it when you’re older.” If they are old enough to ask the question, they are old enough for an age-appropriate answer.
What I want parents to know is that your kids have questions. They may be awkward questions, basic questions or shocking questions. No matter how sheltered you have tried to make their world, they are taking in information all the time and they are learning how the world works. The questions my kids express have typically come from interactions they’ve had with other kids. We can keep their worlds pure, but we can’t control the environments of the other children they’ll come in contact with at school, at the playground, even at church and family functions.
Some of our kids are more precocious and curious. They will feel free to ask us questions as they come up. Other kids are more shy or oblivious. But even my most oblivious kids have had questions. So what’s the one thing our elementary age kids need to know about sex?
They need to know that they can ask us questions and we will tell them the truth.
When we set ourselves up as the authority on sex, we can help craft the mental narrative our kids will have about sex. Our kids aren’t left embarrassed or confused, but empowered and informed. Knowledge about sex is powerful for our kids. It can keep them safe from abuse by people who would like to use their naiveté to confuse or manipulate them.
Our kids will need different levels of information at different times. If we haven’t established that we are safe people to ask, how will we know what they need to know? Often I have found that the best way to first respond to their questions is with questions of my own. Where did you hear that word? What made you curious about that? Why did your friend say that? When did you see that? This will help us understand what exactly they’re asking and get a better idea about what’s going on in their conversations with friends. Sometimes we think they’re asking more than they actually are. Start by asking some clarifying questions, make your answers simple and direct and let them lead with more questions if they need more information.
When we don’t answer the questions they’re asking, we’re pushing them to look elsewhere for answers. The questions don’t go away, but our ability to be the authority does. If we don’t answer them, Google always will. The neighbor kids will. Their friends at the lunch table will. They will piece together answers based on things they heard once or caught a glimpse of. It may be easier in the short run to not have to answer these questions, but much harder in the long run to regain your child’s trust if you haven’t been honest with them.
Tell them the truth. Take your time. Don’t get flustered. Ask them questions. They learn at different rates and become curious in their own time, but they all need this one thing from you: your honesty. The one thing they need to know about sex is that when they have questions, you will answer them and you will tell the truth.